Boss’s legacy

Delprat's legacy: The BHP Steelworks site in Newcastle in 1915.
Delprat's legacy: The BHP Steelworks site in Newcastle in 1915.

AS the anniversary of the Newcastle’s BHP Steelworks closure draws near next month, let’s pause to remember the life and times of Guillaume Delprat (1856-1937).

Guillaume who? Guillaume Delprat, an often overlooked BHP pioneer in the eyes of the general public, that is.

For the Dutch-born G.D. (for Daniel) Delprat was really the man responsible for creating the steel colossus on swampland at Port Waratah in the first place.

“Big Harry’s place” as BHP was affectionally once known went on to employ 11,558 workers at its peak in 1964 when it was a vital part of everyday life in our Steel City.

But then, operations gradually wound down and the steel works finally closed on September 30, 1999.

It’s hard to imagine it ever existed now that the huge waterfront site has been swept clean as a billard table.

BHP brought jobs and security to Newcastle for 84 years and it was all due to the persuasive powers of the energetic and resourceful G.D.Delprat, BHP’s general manager from 1899 to 1921.

It was Delprat who convinced the Broken Hill Proprietary Company Ltd board in 1911 to switch from silver production to steel to survive long-term. Not to change would mean the young BHP, the famous silver-lead miner, faced “certain death” unless it changed tactics, Delprat advised.

Back in 1906 Delprat had realised the company’s rich ore at Broken Hill in western NSW could soon be exhausted, but that its high grade iron ore at Hummock Hill (Whyalla) would ensure “a future more prosperous” if the iron ore was transported to make steel near a major coal source with a good harbour (Newcastle).

It was also Delprat who was prominent in complex negotiations with the Commonwealth and NSW government during 1912 which led to the erection of Newcastle Steelworks, which opened in June 1915.

Delprat’s achievement was officially recognised when he was made a CBE in 1918.

Today, however, when people think about the early Newcastle Steelworks they are likely to think instead of American steelworks engineer David Baker, the goatee-bearded Quaker from Philadelphia. A first-class steel expert, Baker oversaw the birth of Newcastle Steelworks in 1913, then became its first works manager from 1915 to 1924. Today, the main traffic artery through the empty industrial site is David Baker Drive.

But it was Guillaume Delprat who recruited Baker and kept a steady hand behind the scenes to ensure the company’s successful entry into Australian steelmaking.

Part of Delprat’s vision was also to have the plant surrounded by associated plants, like Ryland Bros and Australian Wire Rope Works, which did happen.

A thumbnail sketch of the life of engineer/metallurgist Delprat’s might run like this. His mining career had begun in 1879 in Spain, where he won recognition by finding and exploiting old forgotten Roman silver mines. By the mid-1890s he was a respected mining authority.

He arrived in Adelaide in 1898, becoming BHP’s general manager in 1899. Married with seven children, Delprat revolutionised sulphide ore treatment, refining it to reap major profits from previous useless tailings.

In 1911 he took six months leave to check out advances in steel making, visiting 23 works in America, Britain and Europe.  

Author Christopher Jay, in his history of Newcastle Steelworks entitled, A Future More Prosperous, said the closure of primary steel making in Newcastle provided a landmark shift for the city at the beginning of the 21st century. No more would there be the sight of throngs of shift workers, streaming in and out of the main gates at changeover times, nor the expectation of lifetime employment for so many workers.

Restored History: The Delprat cottage on Ingalls Street in Mayfield. Now restored, it will be a heritage centre.

Restored History: The Delprat cottage on Ingalls Street in Mayfield. Now restored, it will be a heritage centre.

“But behind it the plant leaves a formidable historical legacy. It was the vision of Guillaume Delprat, John Darling [a BHP director] and David Baker that provided the basis for large scale 20th century industrialisation in Australia,” Jay wrote.

Delprat made a “breathtaking understatement” during a 1912 steel inquiry. Asked if future works at Port Waratah might be detrimental to people’s health, Delprat replied: “No. Steelworks make hardly any smoke.”

“Delprat’s Cottage”, off Ingall Street, Mayfield East, was built on the only high ground BHP owned. It enabled the BHP general manager to keep a close eye on construction progress of Port Waratah steelworks.

Pre-World War I, Delprat used to stay at the Great Northern Hotel then catch a “penny tram” to Carrington, before walking across swamp to Port Waratah.

Apparently stung by criticism the future steel plant might be a cheap project, Delprat had a modest brick cottage built in which to occasionally stay. From his bedroom window especially, Delprat had a prime view of the waterlogged site being in-filled and buildings starting to emerge.

Tough guy: The roman rings in a bedroom of the Delprat Cottage.

Tough guy: The roman rings in a bedroom of the Delprat Cottage.

After Delprat’s retirement, the cottage was used as offices before being abandoned. In 1998,  BHP began restoration of the cottage which is to become a heritage centre.

Heritage Hunter gave history groups the first opportunity to view the state-heritage listed cottage last weekend.

“Delprat was also exceptionally strong,” Heritage Hunter spokesman Bob Cook said. “He had big roman rings installed in his bedroom ceiling to do daily exercises and a daughter Paquita was married to the explorer Sir Douglas Mawson. He spoke five to seven languages and kept diaries which enabled his daughter to later write a book called A Vision of Steel about her father.

“In September 1935, 14 years after he retired, Delprat returned to Newcastle at the invitation of BHP where his old cottage was again put at his disposal. It was BHP’s Golden Jubilee,” Cook said. “The gesture was very much appreciated. Delprat wrote he had a very interesting time at the BHP site, meeting old friends. But he was surprised his steelworks were then ‘twice the size that they were when I last saw them’ and had trouble finding his way around.”